The Red Shredding: On Netflix’s “3 Body Problem”

By Christopher T. FanMarch 30, 2024

The Red Shredding: On Netflix’s “3 Body Problem”
IN SEPTEMBER 2020, when Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, joined by producer Alexander Woo, announced that they would be adapting Liu Cixin’s blockbuster alien invasion novel The Three-Body Problem (2008) for Netflix, they were met with equal parts excitement and skepticism. The novel and its two sequels, which comprise Liu’s original Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, were immediate hits in China (the series isn’t a reference to Proust; the Chinese title, 地球往事, translates to “Earth’s Past”). Soon after their English translations were published in 2014–16, high-profile fans like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg helped to launch the trilogy and its author into the global spotlight. In the meantime, Liu has become one of China’s most recognizable celebrities and commentators. The novels themselves are, by some accounts, the best-selling works of Chinese fiction outside of China since 1949.

The trilogy’s narrative begins in Cultural Revolution–era China, where a talented physicist named Ye Wenjie is forced to watch helplessly as her beloved father is killed by Red Guards. When she is later compelled to participate in a top-secret project to contact extraterrestrials, she receives an unexpected warning from a rogue alien with a conscience, begging her and the rest of humanity to cease attempts at communication lest they become targets for invasion. Rather than heed this warning, Ye seizes the opportunity to exact revenge on humanity, which she deems morally bankrupt and “no longer capable of solving its own problems.” She responds by inviting the aliens, called the San-Ti, to invade. The San-Ti in fact have no choice but to leave their home planet, which is no longer viable. A portion of their remaining population immediately boards spaceships destined for Earth. They have no interest in coexistence. But even with their incomprehensibly advanced science and technology, they won’t arrive for another 400 years—because space is really, really big.

This long interval of time is the trilogy’s special sauce. It creates an expansive playground for all of the things that make Liu’s fiction so distinctive and fun to read: infodumps on theoretical physics, ingenious solutions to engineering problems, expansive character systems, philosophical rumination, political intrigue, and extended scenes involving weird, high-dimensional geometry. These are also the things that make Liu’s fiction challenging to adapt.

Narrative and visual challenges notwithstanding, the Chinese production company Tencent produced an adaptation, retitled Three-Body, that aired last year to the delight of die-hard fans who praised its often verbatim visual and narrative fidelity. Upon hearing the news of Netflix’s adaptation, Chinese netizens were concerned about how the trilogy’s deeply Chinese outlook—its settings, characters, and cultural references—might be deformed, deleted, or, worse, Disneyfied, as in the Mulan movies. One of China’s most globally successful IPs, they worried, might be reduced to an Americanized knockoff.

There was more at stake than national pride. For Liu’s early readers, the San-Ti and their advanced technology were allegories for the United States: an existential threat that could serve as a goad to innovation. When the novels were first serialized in China in 2006, they gave expression to widespread optimism over the country’s world-historical economic growth. True, the tech sector wasn’t seen as pushing the cutting edge in the way it is today (especially in artificial intelligence); rather, China did the manufacturing while innovation came from American companies such as Apple. But tech gave China’s growth a sheen of modernity fitting for a civilization returning to its proper place atop the world order. At the time, Chinese tech relied more on copying American tech than challenging it, but no one in Zhongguancun (China’s Silicon Valley) had any doubt that, with the right mindset, Chinese entrepreneurs would catch up with and eventually surpass their rivals across the Pacific.

In some ways, what was at stake for Liu’s fans was the essence of the trilogy itself. The new adaptation cannot escape the fact that Netflix is an American company. That basic fact reverses the allegory so that, in Benioff, Weiss, and Woo’s version, the San-Ti allegorize China rather than the United States. However, the show (now titled 3 Body Problem) is still marked by the fact that Liu’s novels are artifacts of 2006 China. Take, for example, the following scene, which, I would venture, might have been the one that seduced the showrunners into taking up the project in the first place.

To set the stage: A small faction of humans, referred to vaguely as “the movement,” has organized in secret to welcome the San-Ti, even if that means humanity’s destruction. They travel the world aboard a repurposed cargo ship that the protagonists, who are leading the resistance against the San-Ti, have learned will traverse the Panama Canal. This presents a crucial strategic opportunity because the ship is transporting data containing all of the communications between the San-Ti and their human compradors. But how to secure the data without the people on board destroying it first?

After considering a number of more conventional ideas, the protagonists decide that they will stretch several lengths of superstrong nanofiber across the narrowest point of the canal to form a “zither” that will slice through the cargo ship as it passes, like a hot wire through butter. Everyone on board will be cut into pieces, and even if the hard drive containing the sought-after data is sliced, the cut will be so microscopic and clean that the drive can still be reconstructed.

This scene won’t surprise viewers familiar with the gory glee with which Game of Thrones killed off its main characters, emblematized by the infamous “Red Wedding” scene in season three. The Tencent version is gory too, but it doesn’t delight in the bloodshed nearly as much as the Netflix version does. Benioff, Weiss, and Woo spend a lot of screen time establishing that there aren’t just adult fanatics on board but their kids as well. In fact, the ship houses an actual elementary school. The showrunners really want you to know that these kids are going to die in the bloodiest way possible.

The resulting scene delivers and then some, but its function isn’t pure spectacle. The shredding of the children intensifies the moral question that hovers over the whole story: human survival, but at what cost? In the novel, there’s little hand-wringing over the operation’s innocent victims, and the Tencent version elides the moral question by making the ship’s passengers hardened criminals and terrorists. In the Netflix version, the nanofibers are the invention of researcher Auggie Salazar (Eiza González), who is haunted by her decision to allow her bleeding-edge technology to be weaponized. She also openly wonders about who actually benefits from humanity’s resistance to the San-Ti invasion (“the people getting fucked over will always get fucked over”).

The Netflix adaptation wants to distinguish itself from previous versions of the story by lingering on questions such as these, which signal that the original allegory has been reversed. These are the kind of questions, we are given to understand, that concern Americans, not the Chinese, who don’t respect human rights. But Salazar also registers the irony of telling an American audience that our people are threatened militarily by an alien other. This attempt at reversing the allegory, from an American perspective, doesn’t quite work. It wouldn’t have been convincing had the allegory been reversed in 2006, when we were dropping bombs on Iraqi and Afghan children, and it’s even less convincing today as American bombs are dropping on Palestinian children. Even so, it’s worth asking why the Red Shredding scene survives almost fully intact, given the many things the showrunners otherwise cut from Liu’s novel.

When the movement’s leader, an American named Mike Evans, finally clocks what’s happening to his ship and its passengers, he drops to his knees and presses the precious hard drive to his heart a beat before he’s zithered. The Netflix adaptation depicts the drive as an index card–sized red block that resembles a little red book—a striking embellishment not found in any other version. Given the pivotal role that the Cultural Revolution plays in the story, as proof positive that humanity deserves only the worst, this little red drive might symbolize the misguided fervor of Maoism. It might even be tempting to read it as symbolic of a post-2008 American fantasy about “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”—the secrets of economic growth revealed only to acolytes like Evans who embrace the good news of the United States’ future overlords.

Little red drive—or little red herring? The allegorical confusion here might actually offer us a moment of clarity. Reversing the allegory and imagining 2024 America as a version of 2006 China reveals not so much how both are the same but how globalization continues apace, even if apparently under more than one aegis: Evans’s drive is both China red and Netflix red. Evans and his movement refer to the San-Ti as “Our Lord.” One thing that has certainly become clearer since 2006 is that the US and China are both beholden to the same sovereign. If the San-Ti are going to kill us all, it’s because they’re figures for global capital itself, and the stakes are not geopolitical but planetary. Four hundred years left actually sounds pretty good.


A key factor worth considering is that there is no Netflix in China. The adaptation therefore must navigate two imperatives. Because it wants to reverse the novel’s original allegory, it has to contend in some way with the anti-China consequences of that reversal. At the same time, it can’t afford to completely alienate a Chinese market that Netflix might someday enter. It’s an awkward position, but the result is that 2006 China comes through in the adaptation in several interesting ways.

For instance, the showrunners have elected to use Liu’s original Chinese term for the aliens (“sān tǐ” translates to “three-body”), rather than “Trisolarans,” which is the already supercool translation that Ken Liu (no relation to Cixin) used in his English translation of the novel. While one aspect of the novel’s Chinese context is preserved, others are eliminated or deformed by the showrunners’ goal of adapting Liu’s novel for a “global” audience. This entails relocating many of the settings to the United Kingdom, and combining and repatriating key characters. Indeed, most of the cast is nonwhite, even if most are also European or American.

Meanwhile, the show’s Chinese characters are given much more complexity than their sometimes one-dimensional counterparts in the novel. They’re humanized rather than stereotyped, perhaps as a counterbalance to an implicit anti-China stance. One of the main protagonists in the adaptation’s ensemble cast is Jin Cheng, a China-born New Zealander who is imbued with magnetism by the Chinese New Zealander actor Jess Hong. Rather than lacking emotions, Jin is fully in touch with them. The Chinese Mancunian detective Clarence Shi, played beautifully by Benedict Wong, is dynamically charismatic. He is just as compelling in his relentless investigation of a rash of suicides by top scientists as he is in his moments as a flawed but well-meaning single dad. The teenage Ye Wenjie is portrayed with brooding depth by Zine Tseng, and the adult Ye with chilling steadiness by Rosalind Chao.

We’re accustomed to talking about adaptations in the language of fidelity. We focus on how characters, plot points, dialogue, and even emotional tone get translated to a new medium. We don’t often think about how an adaptation adapts the world of the source text’s creation. But the by-any-means-necessary approach that makes the Red Shredding scene so shocking defined the culture of China’s tech sector when Liu wrote the novels. It’s a mindset that views every rival, real or potential, proximal or distant, as an existential threat that must be neutralized, preemptively if necessary. Like the US-China allegory that it informs, this mindset is readily reversible, especially insofar as it feels under threat by an alien other.

Soon after the trilogy was first published, as international relations scholar Chenchen Zhang recounts, a similar by-any-means-necessary “dark forest” theory of the universe (named for the second novel, 2008’s The Dark Forest) found devotees in a segment of tech workers and entrepreneurs, the so-called “Industrial Party” (gōngyè dǎng), who contributed greatly to the trilogy’s popularity. A formation whose politics are roughly analogous to the American alt-right’s chauvinistic nationalism, faux rationalism, and misogyny, its members found a hero in Liu, who sometimes cleaves to the Chinese Communist Party line and whose portrayals of women can be problematic. In the trilogy, the dark forest mindset is attributed to the San-Ti and eventually adopted by humans, who learn to see the universe in the same way. As Kai-Fu Lee, the US-trained former head of Google in China puts it in his account of the Chinese tech sector, AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (2018), “Every day spent in China’s startup scene is a trial by fire, like a day spent as a gladiator in the Coliseum. The battles are life or death, and your opponents have no scruples.” Silicon Valley’s disdain of the copycat Chinese internet business (which might, for instance, recreate a site like Twitter pixel-for-pixel) is a classic example of its own provincialism. Whereas Silicon Valley stigmatizes copying and fantasizes that the value it delivers is innovation, perhaps even making the world a better place, for many of these Chinese start-ups, the copy-versus-innovation dichotomy is meaningless, since the point is to make money.

Even though the dark forest theory hasn’t yet been introduced in this first season of Netflix’s adaptation, it sets the mood from the very start, just as it does in the novels. In each episode, our protagonists struggle against the downward pull of its cynicism. It’s the dimension of Liu’s trilogy that the showrunners appear to have understood best. Reversing the novel’s US-China allegory seems to borrow from the double-edged optimism around tech in 2006 China. Perhaps what drew the showrunners to its dark energy was another fantasy—one about reinvigorating a limping American tech sector, which has been bleeding layoffs recently, with a bracing reminder about the importance of survival at all costs.


Liu’s fiction is often described as “mind-blowing,” and one of the most mind-blowing ideas in the trilogy, which is chock-full of mind-blowing ideas, is the “sophon.” An AI that the San-Ti have sent to Earth to spy on humanity—in fact, they send two—the sophon is a proton whose higher dimensions have been unfolded into lower-dimensional space, creating a planet-sized surface upon which the circuitry of the AI is inscribed before it’s folded back into its higher-dimensional form, which in our three-dimensional space is the size of a proton. Such a little thing, but the difference it makes is grave. In addition to sending images and sound back to the approaching San-Ti fleet through its quantum-entangled twin, each sophon also wreaks havoc on the development of theoretical physics, fucking with the results of particle accelerators and therefore freezing humanity’s scientific progress in the 21st century. In this way, the San-Ti will ensure that, even after 400 years, humanity won’t be capable of resisting their advanced technology.

When it comes to US-China rivalry, the three-body problem upon which the threat of war hinges is one that involves a third country, Taiwan. This is yet another reason why a US-China allegory from 2006 can be so easily turned around in 2024. A key development in that interval is that, today, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry claims nearly 50 percent of the global market share, and Taiwan’s premier state-sponsored manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC), holds a monopoly over the production of the world’s most advanced chips. Without Taiwan’s chips, the global economy—China’s especially—would grind to a halt. This dominance is not just a matter of market advantage but of national security. These advantages comprise Taiwan’s so-called “silicon shield,” which supposedly protects it from China’s well-nigh spiritual goal to reclaim the island. Semiconductor technology originated in the United States, and China has a robust semiconductor industry, but both countries are still years behind TSMC’s capabilities. The semiconductor supply chain is therefore one of the most heated theaters in what some observers call the “new Cold War,” this one between the US and China (a periodization that requires you to believe that the “old” Cold War ever really ended). In October 2022, President Biden signed into law the CHIPS Act, which among other things aims to freeze in place China’s semiconductor industry several generations behind the cutting edge.

What is the CHIPS Act but a sophon directed at China? The reversibility of US-China rivalry appears again when we consider that, in the race to develop ever-more-advanced AI, it’s not so much AI technology itself that will be decisive (Silicon Valley’s imagined advantage) as the quantity and quality of data used to train AIs. So much for America’s sophon. Data is “the new oil,” and China holds the world’s largest reserve. But so much, too, for China’s sophon, TikTok, which is now on the verge of being banned in the US over fears that it’s collecting data on Americans, especially the children whose cognitive development it supposedly freezes in place. We might then turn our attention to a little red N that is doing much the same thing to its own subscribers.

Why point fingers when we could be asking questions about why this allegory is so easily reversible in the first place? What’s become clearer since 2006 is that no matter how these allegories are twisted around, they all point to the same thing: Our Lord, capital.

Like sophons, these allegories are higher-dimensional systems that have been folded down—adapted, if you will—to two-dimensional points that are designed to fuck with you rather than tell you the truth. And like sophons, our only chance at destroying allegories is when they’re unfolded. The tableau of the American Mike Evans clutching his little red drive to his chest—believing in his final nanoseconds that he’s done everything that the San-Ti have asked, and yet doomed never to know why they’ve abandoned him—is an image for our times. It is an allegorical signal, unsure of being received, broadcast to an advanced alien race itself struggling to survive, inviting them to come do what they will with a hopeless civilization that can no longer solve its own problems. Rotated slightly, it’s a pose so lost and desperate that it almost looks like hope.


Correction: An earlier version misattributed the phrase “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” to Deng Xiaoping.

LARB Contributor

Christopher T. Fan teaches at UC Irvine. He is also a co-founder of Hyphen magazine.


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